An influential House panel lashed out at the oil industry and the Bush administration May 8 over the lack of ethanol fuel pumps at service stations around the nation. Congress members from both parties complained that as the number of vehicles that can burn pure ethanol skyrockets, the pumps remain extremely difficult to find. "It's an itch you can't scratch," Representative John Barrow (D-GA) said at a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality hearing on alternative fuels. Car dealers advertise how flex-fuel cars that burn either E85 or gasoline can save drivers money. Motorists, however, can't find the ethanol fuel. Switching to agricultural-based fuels instead of fossil fuels is seen as a way to more energy independence, as well as containing the potential to reduce greenhouse gases. "Biofuels are certainly part of the solution, but not a panacea," said Representative Darlene Hooley (D-OR). She and others exhibited concern that biofuels may increase, not decrease, global warming. In the short term, however, the obstacle to increasing biofuel use is the lack of infrastructure, according to witnesses. California, for instance, has 260,000 flex-fuel vehicles but only one public ethanol pump - in San Diego. Oil industry representatives countered that the lack of pumps supplying E85 is based on prudent business management given uncertainty about the future growth of ethanol production. "Oil companies are not preventing installation of E85 storage tanks and pumps," said Robert Greco, American Petroleum Institute director. It is hard for the industry to justify investing in E85 distribution infrastructure, he said, when the corn-made ethanol supply would soon reach its limit. In addition, it remains hazy when cellulosic ethanol will become commercially available. There are only 1,200 E85 pumps at the nation's 165,000 gas stations, estimated Alexander Karsner, U.S. Department of Energy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy. At the rate gasoline marketers are installing pumps, he said, it would take 100 years for enough to be in service to provide E85 for all of the flex-fuel vehicles coming onto the road. "You have someone with a fist around the pipeline," charged former House speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL). At the hearing, he urged the Justice Department to investigate whether somebody is trying "to jigger the market" for transportation fuels. At issue, said Hastert, has been the failure of Underwriters Laboratories (UL) to certify E85 fueling systems, which has become a roadblock for gasoline marketers in installing the pumps. Nationally, there are 6 million flex-fuel cars on the road, and Detroit automakers have pledged to make half of all their new vehicles flex-fueled by 2010, Elizabeth Lowery, General Motors vice-president for environment, energy, and safety, told the panel. Karsner explained that UL has approved individual pump components, but with the rapid growth of biofuels, the lab now wants to approve E85 pumping stations on a whole-systems basis. This has caused a delay in UL certification, which fire departments and other government authorities rely on when approving equipment installations. Hastert said that the administration needs to find out who's "behind" UL to see whether there has been any manipulation of fuel markets. Barrow also questioned the role of oil company restrictions on gas station franchisees in the slow pace of E85 pump deployment. He said these include preventing purchase of fuel for sale from any other company, restricting E85 signs, and banning E85 pumps at main station fueling islands. Not enough ethanol is available, the oil industry representatives said, to justify a major rollout of E85 pumps, particularly when installation can cost up to $200,000 per gas station. Because of the likelihood of limited ethanol supply, oil companies are focusing instead on making sure that all gasoline contains at least 10 percent ethanol, a blend known as E10. "The foreseeable future for alternative fuels seems to be based on starch-based ethanol," said Charles Drevna, National Petrochemical & Refiners Association executive vice-president. He said ethanol made from food crops will be able to supply only half of the 35 billion gallons a year of renewable fuel called for by the administration. That will consume 40 percent of the nation's corn crop, he added. Drevna also warned that any increase in the current mandate that 7.5 billion gallons of the motor vehicle fuel sold in 2012 must be renewable would cause refiners to reassess plans to expand their gasoline refineries. Indeed, the president's call for Congress to set a 35-billion-gallon-a-year alternative fuel standard for transportation fuel would turn the U.S. into a "net exporter" of gasoline, he said. The panel held the hearing as part of its deliberations on a number of legislative proposals to boost use of alternative fuels and reduce dependence on foreign oil.